Reflections on AfrikaBurn, Peace Corps service, and life

Recently, I’ve had time to reflect. We had our COS conference last week. Three weeks ago, I was galavanting in the Karoo desert during the experience that is AfrikaBurn. Last month marked eight years since my mother died after a long illness.

As I’ve been reflecting, some things became clearer to me. These are five recurring themes that I’ve learned from burns, service, and life.

Embrace impermanence

There’s a saying that there is no time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. While it’s true that no moment lasts forever, it’s also true that life and all the things in it (including AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps) are mere moments. Admitting to ourselves that nothing is permanent (including us) allows us to fully engage in the now. Now is all we have. Why not love now? Forgive now. Embrace now. AfrikaBurn is seven days in a desert. Peace Corps is more than two years in an foreign community. While those moments won’t last, the memories do.

For the first time since I’ve started going to burns, I was ready to depart from the burn last month. AfrikaBurn was still magical. And it still left me high on life and the awesomeness of humanity. But while the high might be long lasting, it isn’t permanent. The need for a constant, permanent high is addiction.

Don’t try to recreate experiences

I remember discussing my first year at Burning Man with a friend of mine. He was excited as I recounted fond memories. I remember him expressing his desire to recreate my Burning Man experience for himself. When I was doing research on Peace Corps before I joined, I saw many volunteers doing amazing work. I arrived in Swaziland, and thought of replicating the work being done by the previous group. It makes sense. They are successful. I want to be successful. I need to do what they’re doing. I believe that the experience we have is heavily influenced by many factors including where we are in life at that time. The factors that made my first year at Burning Man so amazing might not be present in your life at this time. And that’s okay. I believe inspiration and aspirations are powerful, but they don’t have to dictate our path and experience. You are the creator of your own experience. Which leads me to…

It’s all made up

Everything that we see, hear, do and experience is all made up. JFK made up the Peace Corps. Larry Harvey made up Burning Man. Al Gore made up the internet. When wild imaginations are left in childhood, we try to create a better today instead innovating an exciting tomorrow. Life, like AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps, encourages experimentation and innovation. There’s even a camp at Burning Man called, “It’s All Made Up”. Shouts to the IAMU crew. Again, it’s up to us to create and co-create this thing called life.

Sit face to face with people

We live in a world with many things competing for our attention. Partially because of that, sensationalism abounds. We end up with strong opinions of people we’ve never met and know very little about. Real life people become the nameless, faceless “them” or “they”. This changes when we sit with someone, formerly known as strange(r), and experience their humaness through interactions. Suddenly, Burners aren’t a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs in a desert and Swazis (and by extension, Africans) aren’t a bunch of unintelligent, poor people living in mud huts. When we meet face to face, there is often some common ground. We get to deconstruct the single story bestowed on those who want to share their own stories. Even without common language, interests, and/or ideologies, we’re all humans sharing this planet.

Community Interaction

One of the principles of Burning Man culture is “participation”. To me, a large part of that participation is done through interacting with the space and the people in it. Through interaction, we co-create the life experience. In Peace Corps, I’ve found that magic happens when I am a participant in my community. Interacting with the community promotes growth and gets things done. Interaction also promotes relationships and seeing people as more than simple mediums if transaction.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – COS (the conference)

Last week, my cohort (group 14) came together for one last Peace Corps sponsored training. We assembled in the Lubumbo region of eSwatini for our Close of Service (COS) conference. This conference signals the beginning of the end. It’s held about three months before a group is set to leave.

We had our COS conference at a secluded nature reserve with beautiful views and spacious chalets. This was also the last time that we had to take a language proficiency test, which assessed how our language skills have grown throughout our service. We discussed the paperwork and conversations that need to be completed before we leave. We gave three stool samples to ensure that we aren’t leaving with parasitic friends in our respective bowels. We reflected on the work that we’ve done. We began to prepare for the adjustment and reverse culture shock that likely awaits us in America. We discussed how to best represent our service as we seek move on to careers, school or retirement. It was a full week.

While I’ll greatly miss eSwatini and emaswati (pronounced eh-mah-swah-tee), or Swazi people, I am excited for life after Peace Corps. The picture above was taken by PCV Nate during a session with a panel of RPCVs.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Lobola

This past Saturday, I was present for an important part of the marriage process in eSwatini. The lobola (pronounced la-bow-lah), or bride price, ceremony. In Swazi culture, a man (and his family) must compensate his bride-to-be’s family. This bride price is usually paid in cattle, though modern times have seen some families paid in cash.

Like many other things in eSwatini, the community is present as the two families join to discuss how much lobola should be paid. These negotiations are closed to everyone except family. The lobola rates are pretty standardized, but they can vary depending on some factors. Typically, the first born and last born girl will garner 17 cows. Other girls in the birth order usually garner 15 cows. The groom must bring a number of cattle to the negotiations to show that he is serious about marrying. My counterpart and friend, also known as the greatest Peace Corps counterpart in the world, is getting married! After the negotiations are complete, the people gather under a tent for brief praise and worship, and to give thanks for the joining of families in the union of marriage. Following the praise and worship, everyone enjoys food and fellowship.

Congratulations to Nozie and her beau (pictured above) for taking the next step in their life together. May the joy of the lobola ceremony fill their marriage.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Black Girls Global Exchange

Last week, the dreams and desires of a fellow PCV were actualized. In Swazi Spring 2017 (August-September), Dawnita saw a documentary about a girls step team from Baltimore, Maryland. She was moved by documentary, and shared that she wanted to do a documentary screening for the girls in her community.

She had conversations with folks from Baltimore, her hometown. They assembled a team and began working on bringing an idea to fruition. What if Black girls from this step team in Baltimore could connect with Black girls from South Africa and Swaziland? What if the image of their international contemporaries was formed by more than the media? Black Girls Global Exchange (BGGE) was born. More than fifteen high school girls and chaperones from Baltimore journeyed to South Africa and met up with high school girls from Manzini (Swaziland) and Soweto (South Africa). Together, they explored Soweto (and shared dance moves). The girls enjoyed a week of intercultural exchange as they tried new cuisine, shared stories, and completed service projects side by side. I was fortunate to be one of many photographers capturing the events.

On Thursday, girls from all over Swaziland joined the BGGE participants in central Swaziland for a screening of the documentary and a symposium. It was beautiful and emotional. It was surreal at times watching the girls truly and fully embrace the sentiment that we are much more alike than we are different. As the BGGE participants marched into the conference room for symposium, they were indistinguishable. Girls from Manzini and Baltimore wore matching outfits as they led chants of “B-G-G-E”. The energy was electrifying.

During the symposium, a light lunch was served. Two BGGE mentors from Baltimore, who are professional chefs, joined Swazi chefs in the kitchen to prepare a delightful experience highlighting American and Swazi foods. Shrimp and grits (an American favorite) was served alongside chicken feet, pap, and Swazi cornbread (all Swazi favorites).

While the symposium featured many powerful moments, I’d like to highlight two. During the panel discussion (pictured above), BGGE participants from Baltimore and Manzini discussed what they had learned from nearly a week of intentional cultural exchange. The girls shared how they connected on the challenges they face in their respective homes. Gender based violence and inequality is problem in Swaziland and America. HIV plagues both nations with so many infected and affected. At another point in the symposium, the participants from Manzini closed a presentation with a beautiful song. The lyrics hit me as tears fell. “Shine your light–Be the light–We, Black girls; we gotta stick together”. As the lyrics repeated, the stage began to fill with the BGGE participants from Baltimore and other girls. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen during my time in Swaziland. The Black Girls Global Exchange is the epitome of Black girl magic.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Below are more pictures highlighting the Black Girls Global Exchange.

Correction (8 April 2018): There were 4 middle school girls from Baltimore, Maryland, in addition to the high school participants.

The lyrics from the moving song (during the symposium) were: “Show the light…give them life…we black girls…let’s work together.” It was written and arranged by BGGE Swazi Ambassador Nosfiso Magagula, 17 years old.

Indlovukazi, or YAASSS QUEEN

I’ve written many times here about how confusing the siSwati language can be. This post isn’t entirely about that. (I should note that my students frequently remind me that English is extremely difficult, and I agree.) One example of siSwati’s confusion is any number of ways to refer to males and females. Umfana (pronounced oom-fa-nah) and lijaha (pronounced lee-jah-ha) both refer to an individual boy. Bhuti wami (pronounced boo-tee wah-me) and mnaketfu (pronounced oom-nah-gate-foo) both mean “my brother”. Make (pronounced mah-gay) means “mother”, but it’s also used at times to mean “woman”. Umfati (pronounced oom-fah-tee) means “wife”, but is also used to mean “woman” at times. Dzadzewetfu (pronounced zah-zay-wait-foo) and sisi wami (pronounced see-see wah-me) both mean “my sister”.

On my homestead, my host family consists of my host mother and sister. Others may come back at certain times of the year. One of the people who comes back often is my host brother, who lives and works in South Africa. He speaks many languages including Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. Sometimes, I understand the Zulu and very small pieces of Sesotho. When my brother speaks to our little sister, I try to follow the conversation. Luckily, most times it’s siSwati or Zulu. I noticed that whenever he addressed her, he always started “Indlovukazi…”. That’s not her given name (which no one uses) or her nickname (which everyone, including our make, uses). I kept hearing it.

Indlovukazi, ufunani kudla (what do you want to eat)?

Indlovukazi, ufundze njani (how was school)?

Indlovukazi…

Indlovukazi…

One day, I decided to ask him what Indlovukazi meant. He chuckled, and explained that Indlovukazi (pronounced en-jlo-voo-gah-zee) means “queen” in Zulu. (In siSwati, it’s Indlovukati). He went on to explain that he wants her to grow up knowing that she’s a queen and demand to be treated accordingly. He explained that it’s his responsibility as an older brother to demonstrate how the world should regard her. It’s true. Our little sister might have a few names and be called many things in her lifetime. I can only hope that she remembers she is Indlovukazi.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – I would like to publicly thank my students who make sure I rise to the challenge of learning and speaking siSwati.

Monday in a Picture – Chicken Dust

One of the greatest ways to experience a place is through its food. Swaziland’s street food culture features a few staples. One of the meals that can be found all around Swaziland is chicken dust.

Chicken dust is a grilled chicken quarter typically served with a maize porridge known as lipaleshi (pronounced lee-pah-lee-she), or pap, and salad. Some chicken dust stands give the option of fries or rice. You may be wondering why it’s called chicken dust. The short answer is: I don’t know. I suppose that it may be because of the placement of chicken dust stands on the side of the road where dust can be kicked up by passing cars. But again, I don’t know. Chicken dust is a good, quick lunch or dinner that will cost 20-25 emalangeni.

While I haven’t experience all chicken dust places in Swaziland, I’m confident that the best chicken dust can be found in Mankayane across from the bus rank. They give the option of pap or rice to accompany their flavorful, juicy chicken. Be sure to treat yourself to this Swazi delicacy if you’re ever in the neighborhood. The above picture features the delicious chicken dust from Mankayane.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Super Bowl Slumber Party

This morning (my time), I experienced a first in Swaziland. Watching the Super Bowl. A fellow PCV (with amazing WiFi) hosted a Super Bowl pizza party. Swaziland is seven hours ahead of Washington, DC. This meant that we tuned in for a 1:30 am kickoff. The day and night were filled with food, friends, and football. 

I had the thought several moments during the game, “I’m watching the Super Bowl in Swaziland!” This thought made the sporadic buffering very bearable. And now, I’m well fed, extremely tired, and filled with adrenaline from watching an exciting game. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to watch my first NFL game in more than two seasons. The above photo is of some friends who also joined in the festivities. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Embrace

Prior to Peace Corps, I wasn’t well acquainted with organized affinity groups. I was member to various groups focusing on shared interests, but they weren’t organized as affinity groups. Enter Peace Corps. There are affinity groups focusing on different identities and interests. One such affinity group here in Peace Corps Swaziland is known as Embrace. It’s an affinity group organized around the Black American PCV identity. 

This weekend, Embrace members gathered for a retreat. There were wonderful opportunities for team building, enhancing self-care practices, and fellowship. The above photo was taken during one of the sessions on self care. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Sweet Dreams – A Trio of Brides

Because I am posted in a country where I might contract malaria, I have been given an antimalarial medication called, “Mefloquine”. One of the side effects of this medication is vivid dreaming. The following is what I dreamt last night (as best I can remember). 

I was on vacation in Jamaica. There were plenty of beautiful beaches, but I opted to stay away from the beach. I spent most of my time at a playground/park at an apartment complex. I would talk to whoever came to the park. For some reason, I was more interested in hanging around the park than doing anything else. This was a daily occurrence. 

One day, at the entrance to the park, there stood three men in drag who all looked like Marilyn Manson with the hair of Peggy Bundy. Each man had on a wedding dress with hair matching the color of the wedding dress. I felt like I had seen the trio before but I wasn’t sure. One bride wore a white dress with big white hair. Another bride wore a red dress with big red hair. The other bride wore a deep purple dress with deep purple hair. 

As the trio of brides walked through the park, people started gathering. The wall turned into a processional. Then a priest appeared. The processional ended at the priest. By now, everyone from the apartment complex was in the park to see what was going on. The priest lamented about people always coming to the island to get married and not wanting to live there. He wanted more people to move to the island nation. The priest then continued with the ceremony. As the priest continued with the wedding, I noticed that the only people standing before the priest were the trio of brides. I realized that they were marrying each other and paid closer attention because this was the first wedding triad I’d ever witnessed. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – The Weeds

I’ve learned that inspiration comes from all kinds of places. My knowledge of flowers, plants and other greenery is rather limited. I know what grass is. I can identify a tree as a tree. If it has mangos growing from it, I can be a pseudo-botanist for the moment. 

On different walks around my community, I’ve noticed what I would consider flowers. They are beautiful and abundant with vibrant colors. After seeing a beautiful deep purple flower repeatedly, I decided to ask a local friend what kind of flower it was. He replied, “oh, that’s a weed”. I clarified what he meant. Weeds are invasive, unsightly and detract from the beauty of the landscape. Therefore, they must be removed. I’ve learned that beauty is all around us. It’s even in the seemingly unsightly and mundane things that we see everyday. 

The above picture is of one of those weeds as seen on a walk around my community. 

Happy New Year! 
Be kind to yourself. 
Onward.